Amazon Delivery Drones Face Major Legal Obstacles


It’s like something from a sci-fi novel: small flying contraptions delivering packages straight to your door. But using drones for speedy delivery is exactly what Amazon wants to do with its proposed “Amazon Prime Air” program. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the plan, which would offer 30-minute delivery to certain customers, on the show 60 Minutes earlier this month. In order to launch the ambitious plan, Amazon not only has to perfect the technology, but to navigate the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), too.

FAA Revising Guidelines for Drones

Non-military drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have been in use since at least 1990 in operations such as search and rescue, border enforcement, disaster relief, and firefighting.  As of now, the FAA does not permit drones in U.S. airspace unless they have permission, which takes 60 days to get.

But they are working to change that. Congress gave the FAA a date of 2015 to complete and codify rules that would address usage of drones in U.S. airspace, a deadline they may not make. The FAA released a “Roadmap” last month that outlines the issues that must be addressed before allowing drones to operate in the manner that Amazon and others are hoping for.

Some issues the FAA must address include operator or pilot training, certification requirements, and environmental impact. The FAA plans to create rules that ensure drones are as safe as manned aircraft and are regulated in the same way.

Safety and Privacy Issues Facing Amazon

Drones are not currently allowed in populated areas, which are exactly where Amazon would want to go. Their drones would likely fly so low that they wouldn’t interfere with any other aircraft, but airspace safety is one of the most challenging issues. Autonomous, unmanned craft are not able to make avoidance maneuvers the way a trained pilot can; the FAA therefore requires a “flight crew” for each UAS that includes a “pilot-in-command.” Amazon, instead, wants to use drones equipped with a GPS system to fly semi-autonomously.

Creating standards for production and airworthiness is another important task facing the FAA. Small drones still weigh around 100 pounds, and one fear is that they could lose flying capability and crash to the ground, possibly harming people or property. From Amazon’s point of view, ensuring the safety of the delivery is also extremely important. They would need to figure out a way to prevent people from tampering with their drones and stopping delivery.

Amazon’s drones would likely be equipped with cameras, too, so that they don’t “land on somebody’s head,” as Bezos described it. Figuring out how to use cameras to capture only what they need, and not accidentally gather private data, will be a challenge. Amazon surely doesn’t want to go through what Google did when it got in trouble for collecting private data unintentionally.

Rolling Out Changes in Three Phases

The FAA will first continue to allow drones to fly as they do now on a case-by-case basis. Then they will integrate new drones. Finally, they will focus on making regulations that can keep up with the fast-evolving technology.

With all the unsolved problems and regulations yet to come, what’s the outlook for Amazon’s drone program? Amazon may not be able to launch Prime Air as early as it wants to – Bezos mentioned 2015 but admitted that it would take “years of additional work” before being ready – but for the company that worked out a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver on Sundays, it’s only a matter of time.